By Maddie Orton
Headshots are in, muscles are warm and game faces are on. It’s the first of several days of auditions for Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, based out of Fort Lee, as 88 dancers work to earn just four spots for the upcoming season.
“I will eliminate maybe two-thirds of the people and ask them to come back tomorrow for the callback,” explains Nai-Ni Chen, artistic director and choreographer of the company. “And from that group, I may eliminate half of the group and have them come back again on the following day. It’s always as nerve-wracking for me as the dancers who come to the audition.”
Chen knows from experience. Having worked as a professional dancer for several years, she started Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company in the mid-80s to fuse her traditional Chinese dance training with modern dance.
“There’s so much more in me that I took from Taiwan to here when I was 22 years old, and that part of me wouldn’t be able to be expressed if I was just doing other people’s work,” Chen says.
Cultural exchange is a large part of the company’s mission. Annual Chinese New Year performances are a highlight of the season, and shows for school kids are a priority.
“You know, very few teachers have formal training in Chinese culture or history,” explains the company’s executive director, Andy Chiang, “so this is the only way to be exposed to that culture.”
This means company dancers must develop special skills.
“I auditioned for the company last year,” company dancer Kristen Lau shares. “She also brought in a traditional Chinese dancer to do some of the traditional movements with us, hand movements, because a lot of the school programs that we do are traditional Chinese-based dances. We do a lot of outreach, a lot of educational outreach, a lot of teaching, so wanting to be involved in those different aspects is very important as well.”
To be a part of that experience though, dancers need to be hired first. And as round after round of auditions show, that’s no easy task.
“Every audition is different,” says Sydney Lotuaco, a Manhattan-based dancer auditioning for the company. “I always feel like I learn something from each one. It’s always nerve-wracking, but exciting at the same time.”
“You just need to have this mentality that this is part of your career,” says Chen. “I really admire each person who has this determination.”
And Chen looks forward to finding the right dancers to join on her journey. New hires will jump right in with tour dates in China and South Korea this summer, bringing Chen’s unique combination of western modern dance and eastern traditional dance abroad.